Round And Round.

The writing group I’m part of decided it would be fun to try a round-robin writing exercise with everyone who wanted to join adding part of a story. And that got me wondering why it’s called a “round-robin” so I went to the Oxford English Dictionary and found that a round robin is, among other things, a small pancake, a sunfish, a hedge plant, a protective plate for a carriage axle, and, most interestingly, a letter signed by several people with all the signatures arranged in a circle so the recipient wouldn’t know who signed first. This was mainly used by sailors when presenting grievances to their captain, specifically something like, “If you don’t give us shore leave we’re all going to jump ship.” I’m not sure why who signed first mattered but maybe it was their way of showing there was no peer pressure.

Anyway it eventually got around to meaning “A group activity consisting of successive participation from each member of the group” which is what the writing group is doing. The group doesn’t really have a leader but it does have two co-organizers, and they’re generally okay with giving us shore leave whenever we want.

The guy who was supposed to be in charge of the round-robin exercise had to drop out, though, because he’s really busy and he asked if I’d take over. I said sure. I was already planning to join in, although I’d missed the initial discussion meeting, and I didn’t think there’d be that much difference between taking part and starting it off. Except starting it was a bit of a challenge. I had to come up with an interesting opening, a perfect setup that would draw everyone else in while also giving them plenty to work with. I’ve never been part of something like this and the only example I could think of was Naked Came The Stranger which, for obvious reasons, didn’t sound like the best model, although Naked Came The Manatee is a little better. And as a collective project I wanted it to be fun for everyone.

It also got me thinking about how all stories are, in some sense, collective. We all draw inspiration from what we’ve read, what we’ve experienced, and we build stories around a shared language. That led to an epiphany: the closed circle of suspects subgenre of mystery. Think Clue, the movie, not the game, or Knives Out or, for more literary examples, Murder On The Orient Express.

It seemed like the perfect setup. It wouldn’t have to involve murder but I thought trapped people having to work together or turn on each other would, metaphorically and practically, be a great way to keep it interesting and keep it from getting too far out of hand. I wrote about five hundred words about a woman driving to a large, isolated house in a rainstorm. Just after her car passes over the bridge she sees it washed away in her rearview mirror. When she reaches the house and goes in she finds her brother and several strangers all gathered for the reading of her eccentric mother’s will. She tells everyone that the bridge has washed away and a voice from the darkness says, “Oh, we’ve got bigger problems than that!”

I sent it off to the group organizers and got a reply back that, since I’d missed the initial meeting, I missed that they already had a plan drawn up and I’d just be stepping in to lead what they’d started.

Fine. Okay then. Hey, this is a collective project and I’m willing to go with the group.

But they’d better not ask for shore leave.  

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  1. BarbaraM

    Keep writing more of your initial story – sounds like something I would read (or watch) with enthusiasm!

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Funny enough the writing group may end up using it after all. We just need to figure out some time to have another meeting to talk about how to proceed with the round-robin project now that I’ve been asked to take over. But even if the group decides to go a different direction I might keep working on my starter-story just for fun.

  2. mydangblog

    I love your story starter! If I was in the group, I’d abandon the other plan and go with yours—no question!

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      There’s still a possibility the group may stick with my story-starter! We’re working on arranging a meeting to talk about the details and how to proceed with the project so what I’ve written may still be what the group uses as a starting point. Even if they don’t, though, I feel like it was a useful exercise in thinking about how a group-writing exercise could work, what needs to be considered, and how, hopefully, to make it fun for everyone.

  3. M.L. James

    Aliens, Chris! ALIENS! Who do the time warp dance. Oh, wait…
    You do have a great starter for a very interesting murder mystery. I vote for your story-starter. Oh, wait…I guess I don’t get a vote. But if I did, SHORE LEAVE FOR EVERYONE AND WE GO WITH YOUR STORY-STARTER!!!!!!! Hugs, Mona

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Mona, I’ll also vote for the shore leave. And it’s still possible that the group will use what I wrote as its starting point. But as captains go I think I’d like to be more of a Picard than a Kirk. You know, we get something difficult and rather than beaming down to the planet myself and punching a Gorn I’ll ask for suggestions.


    Great group work, Chris. And thanks for facilitating the action here.
    ANN J KOPLOW recently posted…Day 3904: BlameMy Profile

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      The good news, Ann, is my idea for the round robin may still be used, but trying to get writers together is like herding cats–a metaphor I know you’ll appreciate.


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